Smart machines and the future of jobs

[Note: This item comes from reader Randall Head. DLH]

Smart machines and the future of jobs
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
Oct 10 2016

Since the early 1800s, several waves of technological change have transformed how we work and live. Each new technological marvel — the steam engine, railroad, ocean steamship, telegraph, harvester, automobile, radio, airplane, TV, computer, satellite, mobile phone, and now the Internet — has changed our home lives, communities, workplaces, schools, and leisure time. For two centuries we’ve asked whether ever-more-powerful machines would free us from drudgery or would instead enslave us.

The question is becoming urgent. IBM’s Deep Blue and other chess-playing computers now routinely beat the world’s chess champions. Google’s DeepMind defeated the European Go champion late last year. IBM’s Watson has gone from becoming the world’s “Jeopardy’’ champion to becoming an expert medical diagnostician. Self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh are on the verge of displacing Uber drivers. And Baxter, the industrial robot, is carrying out an expanding range of assembly-line and warehouse operations. Will the coming generations of smart machines deliver us leisure and well-being or joblessness and falling wages?

The answer to this question is not simple. There is neither a consensus nor deep understanding of the future of jobs in an economy increasingly built on smart machines. The machines have gotten much smarter so fast that their implications for the future of work, home life, schooling, and leisure are a matter of open speculation.

We need to pursue policies so that the coming generation of smart machines works for us, and our well-being, rather than humanity working for the machines and the few who control their operating systems.

In a way, the economic effects of smarter machines are akin to the economic effects of international trade. Trade expands the nation’s economic pie but also changes how the pie is divided. Smart machines do the same. In the past, smarter machines have expanded the economic pie and shifted jobs and earnings away from low-skilled workers to high-skilled workers. In the future, robots and artificial intelligence are likely to shift national income from all types of workers toward capitalists and from the young to the old.

CONSIDER ENGLAND’S Industrial Revolution in the first part of the 19th century, when James Watt’s steam engine, the mechanization of textile production, and the railroad created the first industrial society. No doubt the economic pie expanded remarkably. England’s national income roughly doubled from 1820 to 1860. Yet traditional weavers were thrown out of their jobs; the Luddites, an early movement of English workers, tried to smash the machines that were impoverishing them; and poet William Blake wrote of the “dark Satanic mills” of the new industrial society. An enlarging economic pie, yes; a new prosperity shared by all, decidedly not.

Looking back at two centuries of more and more powerful machines (and the accompanying technologies and systems to operate them), we can see one overarching truth: Technological advances made the society much richer but also continually reshuffled the winners and losers. Similarly, one overarching pattern was repeatedly replayed. The march of technology has favored those with more education and training. Smart machines require well-trained specialists to operate them. An expanded economic pie favors those with managerial and professional skills who can navigate the complexities of finance, administration, management, and technological systems.

Overall, better machines caused national income to soar and the man-hours spent in hard physical labor to decline markedly. Seventy-hour workweeks in 1870 have become 35-hour workweeks today. An average of around six years of schooling has become an average of 17 years. With increasing longevity, most workers can now look forward to a decade or more of retirement years, an idea simply unimaginable in the late 19th century. It’s amazing to reflect that for Americans 15 years and over, the average time at work each day is now just 3 hours 11 minutes. Those at work average 7 hours and 34 minutes, but only 42.1 percent of Americans 15 and over are at work on an average day. The rest of the time, other than sleep and personal care, is taken up with schooling, retirement, caring for children, leisure and sports, shopping, and household activities.


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